Walter W. Powell is Professor of Education and (by courtesy) Sociology, Organizational Behavior, Management Science and Engineering, and Communication at Stanford University. He is also an external faculty member at the Santa Fe Institute. He is co-director of the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. He joined the Stanford faculty in July 1999, after previously teaching at the University of Arizona, MIT, and Yale. He has been a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences three times, and a visiting fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Vienna twice. Powell has received honorary degrees from Uppsala University, the Helsinki School of Economics, and Copenhagen Business School, and is a foreign member of the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences. He is a U.S. editor for Research Policy, and has been a member of the board of directors of the Social Science Research Council since 2000.
Professor Powell works in the areas of organization theory and economic sociology. He is co-author of Books: The Culture and Commerce of Publishing (1982), an analysis of the transformation of book publishing from a family-run, craft-based field into a multinational media industry, and author of Getting Into Print (1985), an ethnographic study of decision-making processes in scholarly publishing houses. He has conducted numerous studies of nonprofit organizations, ranging from public television and university presses to art museums and higher education. He edited The Nonprofit Sector (1987, referred to by reviewers as "the Bible of scholarship on the nonprofit sector"). The second edition of the handbook, co-edited with Richard Steinberg, was published by Yale University Press in 2006. Powell is also co-editor with Elisabeth Clemens of Private Action and the Public Good (1998). Powell was director of the Stanford Project on the Evolution of the Nonprofit Sector, an analysis of the circulation of managerial practices in the Bay Area nonprofit community, which mapped the flow of ideas among consultants, philanthropists, founders, business leaders, government officials, and nonprofit managers. Current work from that project, with Hokyu Hwang and Tricia Martin, examines the expansion of new managerial mind sets and business practices into the social sector.
Powell is widely known for his contributions to institutional analysis, beginning with his article with Paul DiMaggio, "The Iron Cage Revisited: Institutional Isomorphism and Collective Rationality in Organizational Fields" (1983) and their subsequent edited book, The New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis (1991). Recent work with Jeannette Colyvas and Jason Owen-Smith looks at the genesis of practices that subsequently become deemed appropriate and accepted as taken for granted, and how relational patterns congeal into institutional logics. This work examines the micro-processes through which ideas and practices emerge, and how divergent views become "settled". Networks of affiliations often serve as the pulse of these social dynamics, but our work emphasizes that these structural patterns are deeply entwined with legitimating accounts that justify and interpret behaviors.
Powell is also engaged in research on the origins and development of the commercial field of the life sciences, and the dynamics of collaboration that knit together this field. This line of work continues his interests in networks as a governance mechanism, first developed in his 1990 article, "Neither Market Nor Hierarchy: Network Forms of Organization," which won the American Sociological Association's Max Weber Prize. Powell and his collaborators have developed a longitudinal data base that tracks the development of the biotechnology industry worldwide from the 1980s to the present. With Jason Owen-Smith, Powell is studying the transfer of university science into commercial development by science-based companies, and the evolution of a field marked by widely distributed expertise. Their 2005 American Journal of Sociology paper, "Network Dynamics and Field Evolution: The Growth of Interorganizational Collaboration in the Life Sciences", won the Viviana Zelizer Distinguished Scholarship Award for the best paper in the field of economic sociology.
The challenge of understanding distributed innovation is pursued in two current research projects. One, with Kjersten Whittington and Kelley Packalen, examines geographic agglomeration in the life sciences industry. In an industry based so heavily on money and ideas, why are organizations clustered in a small number of regions around the globe? With Stanford colleagues Dan McFarland, Dan Jurafsky, Chris Manning, and Kaisa Snellman, Powell is studying knowledge creation in interdisciplinary scientific communities. Using Stanford's large multi-disciplinary initiatives in biology & engineering and energy & environment as research sites, we employ network and computational linguistic tools to study how research topics emerge, bridge, and enroll scientists.